This article originally appeared on FirstWeFeast.com.
Back in September of 2013, I penned an opinion article for First We Feast, on the 100-point system of rating wine, and concluded that the future of wine ratings and recommendations will rely largely on friend recommendations and approval. Nearly two years since this article was published, that prediction seems to be coming true, but in a way I didn’t quite expect.
In 2013, Robert Parker was inducted into the Vintners’ Hall of Fame, and rightfully so. His contributions–as critic–have brought the subject of wine many times into a global discussion and his criticism and employment of the 100-point rating system has helped and hurt the industry and individual producers in profoundly striking ways–making and breaking brands, setting global trends, possibly even impacting global styles of winemaking.
Today, however, Parker’s influence continues to wane; his sun is setting. And while many critics still employ the 100-point system, no one critic’s ratings are as impactful as Parker’s–will a new “Parker” emerge? I think it unlikely, however, I did conclude back in 2013 that, “Ultimately, the 100-point scale is here to stay,” and I cautioned winemakers and retailers to pay attention to how the paradigm will shift. I’ve argued that friend recommendations are truly more powerful than any score. I’ve personally witnessed time and again, the “big buyer” making a purchase because a “big buyer” friend suggested a wine he had tried. But where do these people get their recommendations?
People who buy wine on a consistent basis don’t just buy when a wine garners big points. They go to winemaker dinners, they go to wine country, they buy and buy and taste and taste. They’ve made friends with the Bordeaux buyer at their local wine shop. They read, they listen, they sample and they make purchases. Do they take scores into consideration? Surely many do, as do consumers of all pocketbooks (deep pocks and shallow pockets). Heck, shelf talkers still influence buyers, and most of those are point-driven.
But, I’d like to add to my 2013 predictions, and site the next generation of educated wine world professionals as the collective new world critic. Those of you who are passionate and self-educated, as well as those who pursue higher education–going for your WSET certification, or specializing in one area like becoming a French Wine Scholar, or Italian Wine Professional, or American Wine Expert–it will be you, who, together, will have the power to raise a collective voice that is louder than any one critic.
I recently penned an article for Los Angeles Magazine, offering a glimpse into L.A.’s wine lists of the future, and I predicted that the new “social sommeliers,” those somms, beverage directors and wine buyers at restaurants and retail shops, who are active participants in the social conversation about wine (on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and apps like Delectable and Vivino) are an integral part to that collective voice of people who will shape our wine drinking habits of the future. They are on the front lines of tastings and new releases, and their collective enthusiasm for a wine region or group of regions, a style of wine or a winemaker, is where the real power to make recommendations lies.
The future of wine ratings is a future of recommendations, not points or scores, from socially active wine enthusiasts and industry professionals who cultivate their own following and hold court over a sphere of influence. Experience and education imbues the passionate wine enthusiast with the kind of knowledge and confidence to entertain and communicate what is complex about wine, what is fun about wine–socially active oenophiles who post photos of labels and talk about wine in the vernacular will emerge as the collective voice for wine drinkers of the future. More and more people will learn of wine’s complexities through social engagement. Friends and confidants (trade and non-trade) will replace the lone critic and his bully pulpit. Wine drinkers will realize the power and worth of a discerning palate because of the value their friends place on such expectations.
So: to all you students of wine, be you in the trade, a sales rep, a bartender, a sommelier, a retail buyer, or simply a self-professed enthusiast and wine lover, to you all and anyone who drinks wine, I encourage you to read my original article (below) and chime in–what do you think? And for those students of wine who are progressing up the ladder of certifications, how are your thoughts changing? What do you predict will be the future of wine recommendations?
ORIGINAL ARTICLE: Why The 100-Point System of Rating Wine is Irrelevant
The 100-point scale has dominated the critical discussion of wine since it was first popularized by Robert M. Parker Jr.’s Wine Advocate in the 1970s. Previously, UC-Davis, the premier school in the United States for wine education and research, had previously introduced a 20-point scale, which was also used in Britain. But Parker saw that a system modeled after the standardized testing in American high schools could connect with more people—it was easy to understand that a 95-point wine was, in theory, “better” than a 75-point wine, which probably translated to a C-grade product. Suddenly, the complete wine novice could find common ground with the snobby wine aficionado. (In reality, it is a 50-point scale—wines receive a score of 50 points just for being wine; the next 50 points are awarded for quality, character, and the potential for aging.)
For buyers and sellers, a higher score means the potential to charge more money for a superior wine. The methodology has become so entrenched that the term Parkerization gained currency in wine lexicon. A wine hoping to receive a high score might have been “Parkerized”—in other words, produced in the riper, fuller, richer style that dominates the upper echelons of the rankings, in the hopes of avoiding a lower score and the possible demise of the brand due to lack of sales.
While the 100-point scale has become an industry standard, it’s not without its detractors, many of whom bemoan the tyrannical hold that it has over sales. But what’s actually more telling than the chorus of naysayers is the fact that an increasing number of people don’t care at all—in fact, for many drinkers, it is completely irrelevant and bares no consequence on the choices they make to purchase wine.
Wine industry professionals and critics are so entrenched in the insular world of their work that they’ve forgotten just how many people exist outside the industry, and what it is like to experience a wine without a wealth of knowledge about it.
Tasting a wine is like taking in a piece of art—it is an entirely subjective experience. However, few people object to a little guidance, or idea of what complexities might exist in the wine—just as they don’t object to learning about symbolism that exists in a piece of art. Turning to someone with more knowledge and authority on the subject can help shed light on why the wine tastes the way it does—with the expectation that the information provided is objective, allowing people to draw their own conclusions. And this is where the 100-point scale falls short—it cannot provide objectivity. It is a scale, employed by a multitude of critics, each with his or her own unique education, palate preferences, and vocabulary. What comes across as a “red cherry” aroma to one reviewer might register as “blackberry” to another. And again, without getting into the specifics of the argument, a vast amount of people simply do not care.
If the 100-point scale has, in a sense, ceased to exist for so many people, what has caused this shift and what will take its place, nudging the masses toward one wine or another? The answers are surprisingly simple: friends and self-determination.
A NEW ERA IN WINE
The wine landscape has evolved greatly since Parker first started using the system. Styles change as producers engage in new practices of cultivating grapes or upgrade their production facilities. Mistakes can also lead to major shifts (it was allegedly an intern’s critical error of opening the wrong valve of a tank that lead to the creation of Pink Zinfandel or a stuck fermentation, depending on who tells the story). Moreover, the deluge of information and open communication brought on by the digital age has created a definitive rift: young drinkers on a budget versus older drinkers with deep pockets.
Efforts to captivate the younger crowd have led sommeliers and retail storeowners to produce quirkier, more personal wine lists and inventory these days. The market is slowly becoming more democratic, and there is an effort to cut through the stereotypical stodginess of wine—best represented, of course, by such a strict grading system. A lot of passionate wine enthusiasts are pursuing their interests free from the tyranny of scores—many oblivious to it altogether. They seek out the advice of friends or a trusted store owner, or rely entirely on their gut, judging a wine by a label, by the price tag, or by the grape.
MAKING WINE MORE PERSONAL
Eric Asimov, the wine critic for the New York Times, touches upon another crucial factor in the judgment of wine in his new book, How To Love Wine: “Nothing matters more to how we perceive wine than the context in which it is consumed.” I would add that if a wine has been recommended by a friend or trusted acquaintance in the context of a happy occasion, the positive perception of that wine is increased tenfold—regardless of the score, even if the score is somehow revealed.
The best example I can share to illustrate this phenomenon is a personal experience. In the fall of 2012, at an intimate gathering in Los Angeles, I was introduced to the newest members of my wife’s dance company. The Artistic Director of the company, who was hosting, graciously opened some exquisite California and French wines. There was no mention of producer, let alone scores—only satisfied oohs and ahhs that reverberated around the courtyard as we sipped and got to know one another.
Since that first gathering, two of the dancers have taken to texting me, often while sitting at a wine bar, asking me for a recommendation, with a courtesy shot of the wine list. Of course, I’m flattered by this, but I realize there is something telling about this ceremony. The dancers don’t ask the bartender for help, and they certainly don’t pull out the Wine Spectator app or Google Robert Parker’s thoughts on the wines on the list—instead, they seek the advice of a friend. At the end of the day, a score doesn’t stand a chance in the face of a friend’s praise or disapproval of a wine, especially as younger generations of drinkers don’t even know or care about that score to begin with.
The critic has no choice but to offer an subjective opinion, and for the population of wine drinkers that do take advantage of a critic’s likes and dislikes (and it is largely people in their 50s and 60s who are financially successful and have wine cellars), it is on the grounds that they have discovered a kinship in taste with that writer. With such a huge selection of wines in the marketplace today, knowing that one’s taste preference is aligned with a critic’s is a good thing—but it is still only a part of the battle.
The only way to truly judge a wine is to taste it and to think about it. Take a sip, swirl the liquid around in your mouth, and pay attention to what is happening—what visceral reactions do you notice? Then, draw your own conclusion. And once you have, you immediately become the unofficial brand ambassador (or worst nightmare) of that wine. If you liked it, you’ll tell your friends. If you hated it, you’ll advise them not to buy it. If they choose to veto your opinion, chances are, it’s not because they know the wine’s score, but simply because they are contrarian and like to upset you.
Ultimately, the 100-point scale is here to stay, as the wine industry still relies on it to structure the marketplace. But winemakers and retailers should be paying attention to the very real shift that’s happening in how consumers discover and buy wines. If they can figure out a new way to capture this newer, more personal way of judging wine, only then might the 100-point scale fall into oblivion, as a new monument rises to take its place.
Here’s a little bonus reading—some of the major critics of the day are quoted below, offering their take on the old-guard scale. I’ve included my own commentary as well.
Matt Kramer of Wine Spectator: “Granted, scores have an influence, if only because they are so instantly and intuitively understood.” I agree.
Steve Heimoff, a popular writer and blogger: “One flaw is that two critics, both of them seasoned professionals, might give the same wine different scores, resulting in cognitive dissonance for the consumer.” And: “I can envision a future (and you can, too) in which consumers are so smart about wine that they don’t need help from anyone.” Heimoff recently prophesized that as curious wine enthusiasts age from their 30s into their 40s and 50s, and become more picky about the wines they drop their hard-earned cash on, they will look to the guidance of a critic, and that critic will employ the 100-point scale. On this observation, I agree wholeheartedly, and doubt that I will live to see the day when the 100-point scale is scraped for a new system.
Alder Yarrow of Vinography: “We look to critics not just to analyze, but to make aesthetic judgments, and their assessments are necessarily born of the human condition: we have both perceptions and emotions, and we can no more divorce the two than we can give up our humanity. The real question is whose perceptions and emotions do we trust?” And to that question, Alder, the answer is one we both know: friends. We trust our friends.
Eric Asimov, New York Times wine critic: “Wine scares people, and the chain of critics, scores, tasting notes, and all that goes with them is a way of alleviating those fears, of making an anxiety-ridden situation tolerable. But it also fosters dependency.” Yes, Eric, wine terrifies many people. The myriad bottles of inky black juice, ageing within dark green glass, perched on the shelves of wine retail stores around the country, truly mystifies those who lack the confidence to formulate an opinion. They also haven’t had the innumerable experiences you’ve had, and perhaps have never taken a class on wine.
Jon Bonne, San Francisco Chronicle wine writer: “The 100-point system is flawed, of course, but it’s also emerged as perhaps the most effective tool to have spoken to a lot of consumers in the past three decades.”
And here’s what Robert Parker has to say (on his website): “The numerical ratings are utilized only to enhance and complement the thorough tasting notes, which are my primary means of communicating my judgments to you.” Granted, his original intentions may have been to “enhance and complement” the wines, but the numerical child he helped popularize has outgrown Parker’s naïve “just a complement” mentality. Parker is fully aware (or in full denial) that his scores have made and broken wine brands over the last three decades.